Basic Cell Phone Photography

I put this together as a way to learn to take better pictures.  Writing about a subject is the best way that I know of to learn a subject well.  The information here chiefly comes from three places: a couple of photography books I got from the library, youtube videos I mostly listened to while doing other things and from my own trial and error process.  Believe me, I’m not an expert by any stretch of the imagination but I think taking pictures is fun.  Learning how to take (at least what I think) are better pictures is sort of exciting.  And since I have awful motor skills and barely legible handwriting, photography is just about the only way that I’m ever going to be able to express myself in the visual arts.

To begin with, photography is something to be practiced and experienced.  You can read about all the millions of ways to take pictures and you could know everything about all the equipment that exists but if you don’t do anything with that knowledge your practice will be at the same level as an absolute beginner.  With my cell phone camera, the Samsung Galaxy 7, I like to experiment with different ways of capturing a scene.  I usually have the phone on me so it fits with my lifestyle.  Soon, I’ll make the jump to a better camera but not yet.  I haven’t mastered using the one I have.  One thing that has helped me is that I never look at my pictures until I stop taking pictures.  Sometimes I do look at the screen to see what it looks like however.  I just try a bunch of settings in the pro mode or the auto mode.  Sometimes I go to different modes and see what happens.  Apart from certain lighting situations, I haven’t noticed much difference between changing anything in pro mode and just using auto mode.  Twilight and darker settings are one of the places where the pro mode is really useful.  It allows for much more tinkering with ISO and shutter speed to produce unique effects.  Developing an eye to the documentation of our world has allowed me to think about the ordinary in a very different way.  The final non-sequitur: this is a work in progress and I’m going to update it frequently.

The Ultra-Basics:  Lens and Focus

Light enters the camera through an opening called an aperture.  Normally, the aperture is closed.  When you take a picture, the aperture opens for a brief instant allowing light to reach the film or sensor.    The speed at which the aperture opens and closes is called shutter speed.  Once light hits the focal plane recording medium, a picture is recorded.

Aperture is measured in f-stops.  For example f. 22 is a very small opening while f. 1.8 is very small large.  Controlling for the aperture is a way of controlling how much light gets to your camera and then what kind of picture you are going to take.

A lens is located over the aperture.  The lens focuses light on the film or sensor.  The camera is in focus when the rays of light are brought together on the sensor or film.  The circle of confusion is when an image is not in focus.  There are several types of lenses that may or may not attach to a camera.  Macro lenses are used for photographing small objects while telephoto lenses are used for distant ones.

The focal length is when the camera is focused on infinity.  A normal focal length is when a subject 3 feet away looks 3 feet away in photograph

The sensitivity of film is measured in something called ISO.  This is a measurement of how sensitive the camera will be to light.  The higher the ISO number the more sensitive the film is to light.  ISO can range from 50 to 5,000 or higher.  ISO 50 is not very sensitive to light so it can be used in bright sunny conditions.  ISO 800 is very sensitive to light and can be used in low-light conditions.  Any ISO value over a certain amount tends to get grainy if used in too much light.

Exposure:  Exposure =aperture + shutter speed + ISO.  All three of these are related to each other in an inverse fashion.  The best way to think of the relationship to to understand how each control how much light gets to the sensor.  Cell phones have fixed aperture so you do not have to worry about it in cell phone photography.  Cell phones control the amount of light getting to the sensor by ISO and shutter speed.

Samsung Galaxy 7 Camera

The aperture is f/1.7.  This is a wide setting.  ISO 600 to 800 can be a real sweet spot but ISO values as low as 50 give good results in bright sunshine.

  • Regarding shutter speed: FAST is 1/500 or higher.  A good rule of thumb is 1/1000.  Try 1/3400 in bright sunshine.
  • Crank up the ISO for sports.
  • Try to slow down shutter speed for landscape photos
  • 10 seconds with a TRIPOD and a sensitive ISO for interesting nighttime photos

File Types

JPEG as in most inexpensive cameras.  Nearly all computers can work with this type of file.  Better cameras can take photographs in RAW format.  This is far more complicated.  If you use Google Photos the entire history of the photograph is listed in the metadata. Metadata is information about the image itself.  For example if you look at the information about a photo in Google photos it will tell you what time an image was taken and where.

Metering – Metering is complicated and is mostly the province of people who like to dither about details.  Metering estimates the amount of contrast that will be in a picture by evaluating how bright the subject is.  Point and shoot models use average metering.  Cell phones have the ability to spot meter, which is to meter light at a point.  There is center-weighted and spot meter.  With cell phones I take several photos.  One without metering and then I put my finger on the screen and this will spot meter the photo at that point.  This will either lighten or darken the photo.  Trial and error is the best way to learn this.  I wouldn’t get too obsessed with this.  Take a few pictures of a subject with different metering options and then evaluate them later on.

  • Center weighted meter is used for portraits.
  • Lens flare when shooting into the sun
  • So when shooting into sun, spot meter another place, maybe lock exposure

White Balance – The White balance adjusts colors in final picture.  The white balance operates on a continuum from warmer colors to cooler ones.  Warmer colors are redder and cooler colors are bluer.   White balances changes the way a final picture is presented.  Incandescent lighting is warmer or redder whereas florescent lighting is bluer or tungsten.  Changing white balance gives a photo a different effect or feel.  Again, trial and error are the best ways to utilize this feature.

There are two ways to zoom in or out with a camera.  Optical Zoom: Changing the focal length so the lens zooms in or out.  Digital zoom Uses a smaller portion of the sensor, can give distortion

Custom settings can save a tremendous amount of time.   Use the portrait setting for close up while using mountain for far way.

Flash –Flash is used to illuminate a subject in low lighting.  The farther the flash is from the lens the better it is for pictures.  I have found that if you manually adjust the settings on the camera, particularly shutter speed and ISO you can get by without using flash.  Sometimes, flash produces red eyes in living subjects and while this can be washed out by Photoshop or another similar program, it is an extra step that takes time.


Pro Mode:  In my camera there is what is called a pro mode.  This is essentially a manual mode.  I like to use this to manipulate how much light reaches the sensor.  Mostly, I tweak the ISO and the shutter speed but sometimes adjust the white balance.  Since my photos are almost always with a cell phone, I’m not able to adjust aperture.  There are other modes and these may be called different things by different manufacturers.  The acronym MAPS may be useful:  Manual, Aperture Priority, Program Mode and Shutter Priority.  Aperture puts a focus on adjusting aperture, shutter on the shutter speed.  Program modes are useful: like portrait, landscape, food etc…

Experimenting is the best way to figure things out.  I like to upload my pictures to Google photos and then evaluate the metadata from there.


The Frame and Content

Frame affects the composition of photos.  I believe that the framing is almost as important as the subject of a photo.  The whole secrets is to enclose the subject in a frame. You can use elements of the landscape to do this.  A classic way is to frame a building with foliage.   As far as orientation goes, we live in a horizontal world so most pictures are going to be taken with the left and right longer than up and down meaning I usually hold the camera horizontally.  By no means however does this always mean that up and down pictures are less adequate.

For landscapes I have been experimenting with focusing on a foreground element and then taking the picture with the background in less focus than it would be otherwise.  I’m finding I like my pictures better this way.

I’m not really into still life pictures but using a black background produces a good effect.

Regarding portraits I think its best to have the subjects fill the frame.

And don’t forget the rule of thirds – this helps out a lot.

The Next Level

My approach is to capture life as it is instead of composing art photos.  I’m more on the side of documentation rather than abstraction.  Art photos can be beautiful however, and alas, represent the next level in photography.  A level that I have yet to even approach!  I have learned a few tips on composing them.  I consider anything abstract to be along the lines of art photos.  Pictures with shadows, diagonals, heads cut off.  All of these can produce mysterious, ominous or other emotional effects.

Bulleted Lists 

I’ve listed some notes below that may be useful to refer to.  There is a lot here so I’ve tried to organize it as best as I can.

Some effects for the composition for the more artistic photographs

  • Fragments of things
  • Chop – try to chop heads off people when there is enough information about a person to create mystery.  Chop cars, dogs, people in the act of movement for effect.
  • Negative space is the space that surrounds a subject and considering it can generate unique effects
  • Consider symmetry v. asymmetry
  • Diagonal lines – use diagonals, move the camera so the street in a photos goes diagonally.
  • Create an impact – experiment with black and white
  • Vary the vantage point.  Shooting action shots from a low vantage point is a famous way to get great action shots.
  • Try lying down and take a picture of the sky.  Then frame with foliage to create frame elements.
  • Fill frame with interest, connect with thoughts
  • Slow shutter speed and small aperture equal deep depth of field.  I think experimenting with this is fun as well.

Landscape photos

  • Wide angle with a small aperture
  • Depth of field and close to foreground makes the best, be 3-6 feet to foreground.
  • Wide angle lens has great depth of field.  Small aperture and fast speed mean less light goes in.
  • Foreground and frame are important parts.  Block the landscape with foreground objects.
  • Foreground elements convey mood.
  • Try taking photos at angles.  Especially of buildings


This is an example of blocking, which is putting elements in the foreground of a photo.  I like the effect that this has.  Often I have found that landscape photos have too much going on in the background anyway so focussing on the foreground doesn’t take much away.  Maybe an impressionist effect?


  • Sun thru transparent things. Use exposure setting to modify things.

Stop Action:

  • Fast shutter speed to “stop action” and capture movement
  • 1/400 or higher is a fast shutter speed
  • Need to raise ISO in low light conditions
  • Speed and direction of subject
  • Focal length
  • Distance between you and subject
  • long shutter speeds produce blurred effects that can be interesting
  • Try to get subject to come towards you.

Camera Blur and Effects

  • Abstract/surreal effects can be created
  • The closer you are to the subject means the more blur you get.
  • Tripods needed, or a support
  • Neutral light filters can do other things.
  • Waterfalls, mist do well with camera blur.  Perhaps use in a photoshopping post-processing type of process.
  • Shooting towards sun, beware of lens flare which comes out as bright dots leading towards the sun


  • Should complement subject
  • Avoid distraction – graphic lines, vertical, horizontal lines, diagonals all distract
  • Blur background in photoshop or post processing
  • Contrast good photo to bad one with the good one larger than the small one on the same page
  • Change backgrounds in photoshop
  • People – out of focus or solid color background.  Telephoto lens can put background out of focus

Vantage point

  • Normal
  • High
  • Low
  • Low and close
  • Taking a photo from above – gives a different impression than below.
  • Taking a photo from below creates a much different impression, larger than life.

Work flow

  • Google photos
  • Bests – metadata
  • Add keywords and ID Scene


  • Put a block in the foreground; something that blocks the subject.
  • Use black background for close ups.  Sometimes going too close can be totally distorting
  • Frame subject in middle
  • Use framing elements to “frame” photo.
  • Framing is critical to interesting photography.
  • Abstract lines sometimes make an impression

Documentation v. Abstraction

  • Abstraction – shape/pattern
  • Line and form
  • Framing

Architectural photographs

  • have foliage fill the frame in the foreground.
  • Use foliage in foreground to frame the building.
  • Try shooting flowers in shade, sunlight contrasts too much
  • Depth of field – slow shutter, small Aperture ex f22, f32 in a SLR type of camera

White Balance

  • AWB – automatic white balance
  • Warm – red tones, tungsten,
  • Blue – Cool – Flash
  • Automatic is OK.

Complementary colors

  • Blue – yellow
  • Red – cyan
  • Magenta – green
  • Outrageous colors – examples:  orange green
  • Overcast light – perhaps more muted tones of color

Shooting into sun

  • Telephoto – sun large
  • Wide angle it is small
  • Photos of light sources w/ small aperature give star effect


  • F1.7
  • 26mm focal length – almost like four thirds.
  • Aperture does not change on a cell phone camera so to adjust light going to sensor you can adjust shutter speed and the sensitivity of the sensor.  So in essence there is not aperture priority mode on a cell phone camera.
  • ISO changes things
  • 600-800 is a real sweet spot
  • FAST is 1/500 or higher, Rule of thumb is 1/1000
  • some good quality in daylight with 1/3400
  • Crank up ISO for sports
  • Try to slow down shutter speed for landscape and see what that does
  • 10 seconds maybe with a TRIPOD, 100 ISO and something else


  • Exposure = aperature + shutter speed + ISO
  • Cell phones have fixed aperture.
  • Dark, medium and light values
  • Histogram shows this in
  • Reflective light meter is in use for all cell phone cameras.
  • If you meter the lightest spot in a light picture it will value that spot as middle gray
  • If you meter the darkest spot then it will value that spot as middle gray.  So this can make a huge difference.
  • These meters work well when the scene is evenly lit.
  • Some cameras average the entire frame.

Technical Stuff

This part represents some of the more technical information that I wrote down from the books I have read.  I’m not exactly how useful it is to ordinary practice but some of the stuff here does serve as a reference.


Sunny Day Rule – The Following is a Table of Equivalent Exposures

I saw this somewhere and it might be useful to someone who has mastered the basics of photography.

ISO        Aperture         Shutter Speed

  • 1000     f.16                        1/1000
  • 500        f. 16                      1/500
  • 250      f. 16                         1/250
  • 100       f. 16                        1/100

Shutter Speeds Needed For Action Shots

  • People walking: 1/125 to 1/500
  • People running:  1/500 to 1/1000
  • Action Sports:  1/500 to 1/2000
  • Flying birds: 1/1000th and up
  • Moving Cars: 1/1000 to 1/1500
  • Auto Racing: 1/2000 and up

Depth of field

  • Wide open apertures with fast shutters, f.2.8 at 1/500
  • Broad depth of field – 1/125 at f/16

Macro Lens

  • Small things are photographed
  • Postage stamps and the like
  • Not microphotography, or photo micography
  • Nikon calls these Micro lenses though
  • Usually 15mm to as long as 200 mm
  • 40 to 70 mm usually good for stamps, baseball cards
  • Don’t cast a shadow on small things…be careful here.

Lens and Sensor

  • Fixed focal length or Zoom
  • Optical center of lens –
  • Wide angle has a shorter length
  • The smaller the focal length the smaller the image will be on the sensor
  • Telephoto lenses are longer, appear to us closer than eye perceives
  • Shorter the lens, the wider the angle
  • Sometimes 180 degrees on on a full frame sensor


  • 15mm is a wide angle focal length lens on a full frame sensor (like a 35mm camera)
  • 35mm is 60 degrees of view
  • 70mm is 34 degrees of view
  • 200 mm is 12 degrees of view
  • While the human eye is about 114 degrees of view

Sensor sizes

  • Full Frame – like a 35 mm (36×24) normal = 50 mm focal length
  • APS-C:  normal is 27×17 mm, 30 mm focal length
  • Four-Thirds:  21mmx17mm, Normal is 25 mm
  • Crop factor -2
  • The full frame to APS-C sensor is a ratio of 1.6

Focal Length

  • Human eye is 17mm on average.  114 degrees field of view
  • Normal focal length on a full frame sensor (focal length of 50mm) yields 40 degrees of view.
  • Longer the length of the lens, the more telephoto it is. Shorter is wide angle
  • 114 35 mm sensor and 50 mm length
  • Full frame sensor has no multiplier factor for the lens
  • This makes any lens that is on a smaller sensor more telephoto.  (crop factor)
  • Human eye sees 120 degrees, but most focus is in front 60/70 degrees.
  • Full frame – normal has a 40 degree angle of view
  • I believe 24 mm focal length is closer to this human eye focus.
  • Normal perspective is 40 degree angle of view
  • As you go telephoto things get closer together.  A long lens is a 500 mm with 4 degrees of angle.
  • Gets right exposure at bright sun at midday
  • The f.16 is a small opening

Sensor and File Types

  • JPEG in cheap camera it is instantly ready
  • RAW – complete info.  In binary code so it requires synthesis.
  • Charged Coupled Device v. CMOS
  • CMOS pixels are charged one at a time, like a TV
  • Red, green, blue light
  • CCD v. CMOS
  • Bayer Array:  sets of colors
  • 50% green, 25% red, 25% blue
  • Pixel is a space where light hits
  • A picture element is called a pixel
  • Full frame sensor has the normal length at 50 mm (sensor is 36×24 mm) meaning that subjects will be in normal relationship to each other.  Telephoto will make differences in perspective.
  • APS C will be normal at 30mm.  APS C is 27×23 and a 50mm lens will be 1.6X larger when it creates an image.
  • Four thirds is 21x17mm and the length is 25 mm
  • Angle of view versus field of view.
  • Normal focal length is almost always the length of the diagonal in a sensor
  • Perspective can be altered by the lens.
  • Normal is normal rendering of foreground v. background elements
  • Compared to a normal lens space is compressed with a telephoto lens
  • Wide angle makes the spaces between objects appear greater
  • This is called distortion expansion.  Ex. man in foreground can appear huge to men standing ten feet behind him.  This uses a wide angle.
  • Focal length series for a single vantage point
  • Shutters are like curtains that close top to bottom

MAPS – Modes in the camera

  • Manual
  • Aperture priority
  • Program
  • Shutter priority


  • Light metering options
  • Spot meter or center meter
  • Metering – evaluative or averging
  • Focus on center then move camera around

Focal Lengths:  Fixed or Zoom

  • 50 mm lens
  • 28/20mm wide angle
  • Most old fast film was 400 ISO.  Normal was 100 ISO
  • 18mm is a wide angle lens while 25 mm is too.
  • Use an APS-C camera body
  • Long lenses usually had an aperture restricted to f4 due to production constraints
  • The wider the aperture the faster the shutter speed.  Wide aperture is usually associated with a shallow depth of field.

Macro Lens:  Small things are photographed

  • Postage stamps and the like
  • Not microphotography, or photo micography
  • Nikon calls these Micro lenses though
  • Usually 15mm to as long as 200 mm
  • 40 to 70 mm usually good for stamps, baseball cards
  • Don’t cast a shadow on small things…be careful here.

Depth of field

  • Wide open apertures with fast shutters, f.2.8 at 1/500
  • Broad depth of field – 1/125 at f/16
  • Portraits use longer lenses sometimes because it compresses features.

Outside of the Cell Phone World


  • f/22 – very small
  • f/16 – twice the light enters opposed to f/22
  • f/11 – twice as much light as f/16
  • f/8 – and so on
  • f/5.6 – and so on
  • f/4 – and so on
  • f/2.8 – and so on

Changing ISO from 400 to 800 doubles the sensitivity of the sensor

50 mm lens – f/16 is the smallest and f/1.4 is wide open

There is a reciprocal relationship between ISO, shutter speed and aperture.  If you raise one you have to lower another to get the same exposure.  If you cut one in half then double the other to get the same exposure

Focal Lengths:  Fixed or Zoom

  • 50 mm lens
  • 28/20mm wide angle
  • Most old fast film was 400 ISO.  Normal was 100 ISO
  • 18mm is a wide angle lens while 25 mm is too.
  • Use an APS-C camera body
  • Long lenses usually had an aperture restricted to f/4 due to production constraints
  • The wider the aperture the faster the shutter speed.  Wide aperture is usually associated with a shallow depth of field.

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